In comparison with other American colleges and universities, Neumann University is relatively young. However, as a Catholic institution in the Franciscan tradition, Neumann has inherited a legacy which extends back more than 2000 years to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, more than 800 years to the time of Francis and Clare of Assisi, and more than 150 years to Mother Francis Bachmann and Bishop John Neumann and the beginning of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Philadelphia who founded and continue to sponsor the university. Neumann’s story continues to be shaped by every person connected with the institution.
Anna Maria Boll was born on November 14, 1824, in Wenigumstadt, Bavaria, one of seven children of Wilhelm Johan (John) and Magdalena Knegel Boll. Her father, a farmer, also operated a store in which the Boll family worked. When Anna was five years old, her only brother, then a year and a half, died. Five years later, Anna’s father passed away. Little is known of the details of Anna’s early life. In the early 1840s, she married Anthony Bachmann and later immigrated to the United States.
Anna Maria Boll Bachmann (later known as Mother Francis) became a widow with three children and pregnant with a fourth child when her husband was killed in an accident at a construction site in Philadelphia in 1851. To support herself and her young family, Anna operated a small shop and hostel for immigrant German women. Her sister, Barbara Boll, moved in to help with the young family. Both Anna and a young guest in the hostel, Anna Dorn, a novice in the Franciscan Third Order Secular, supported Barbara’s wish to found a religious congregation. They sought the advice of Rev. John Hespelein, C.Ss.R., who wrote to Bishop John Neumann, then in Rome. Bishop Neumann had already asked Pope Pius IX for permission to bring German Dominican Sisters into his diocese, but was advised by the Pope, also a member of the Franciscan Third Order Secular, to establish a congregation of Franciscan Sisters in the Philadelphia diocese.
Bishop Neumann approved the request of Mrs. Bachmann and her companions. When he returned to Philadelphia, Bishop Neumann instructed the women, provided spiritual guidance, and accepted them into religious life. On Easter Monday, April 9, 1855, the Bishop invested the three founding members in the habit of St. Francis, giving them new names:
Anna Maria Boll Bachmann: Sister Mary Francis
Barbara Boll: Sister Margaret
Anna Dorn: Sister Bernardine
The sisters served the people of God wherever a need existed. Initially, in addition to hosting immigrant women, the sisters nursed the sick poor while supporting themselves and the sick by piecework sewing. At the time of the smallpox epidemic of 1858, they continued their care for the sick in patients’ homes or, when necessary, in their convents. During that same year they responded to the need for teachers at St. Alphonsus Parish in Philadelphia. For a short time the following year the sisters staffed an orphanage in Philadelphia, the first of several residences serving children where the sisters would minister.
In March 1860, responding to the request of Franciscan Friars to teach German immigrant children in New York, three sisters left Philadelphia for Syracuse, NY. In December 1860, Mother Francis opened the congregation’s first hospital, St. Mary’s in Philadelphia, because the sisters’ convents could not accommodate all their sick poor.
The sisters themselves had few resources apart from their courageous spirit and their trust in God. Many people of Philadelphia generously supported their work. Many of those who were poor were admitted to the new hospital because, as Mother wrote, “There is not a hospital in the entire city of Philadelphia where they accept patients with contagious diseases or poor people. We are convinced that God helps us and blesses our work; we have numerous proofs of that. We feed so many poor who come to the door.” She concluded that letter, “As long as God does not stop giving to us, we shall not stop giving to the poor.”
In response to additional pleas for assistance, Mother Francis sent sisters to Buffalo, New York, to serve the people of this rapidly growing city. While visiting the sisters in Buffalo in late 1862 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Exhausted from travel and ravaged by the disease, Mother Francis died on June 30, 1863 at the age of thirty-nine. At Neumann University the Bachmann Main Building honors the memory of Mother Francis and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
“No risk; no gain.”
Adapted from a Letter to the Sisters in Syracuse, December 31, 1860
Original wording: “He who does not attempt something gains nothing.”
“Courage must guide and support us.”
An excerpt from Admonitions of Mother Francis, Chapter 1
“As long as God does not stop giving to us, we should not stop giving to the poor.”
From a Letter to the Sisters in Syracuse, June 25, 1861
“Even if everything is lost or destroyed, let us be one heart united in love.”
From a Letter to the Sisters in Syracuse, October 24, 1860
The son of Philip and Agnes Neumann, John was born on March 28, 1811, in Prachatitz, Bohemia, in the Czech Republic. The third of six children, John went to Budweis when he was 12 years old to take advantage of educational opportunities not available in his own village. John’s autobiography reveals that he did not have an early inclination toward the priesthood. However, in 1831, after considering studies in Medicine and Law, John chose to study Theology.
During his second year of theology John became attracted to the work of missionaries ministering among German immigrants in North America. Resolved to become a missionary, John completed his studies at the University of Prague. However, due to an overabundance of priests in Bohemia, the bishop decided to limit the number of ordinations. Determined to pursue his dream, John learned English from English-speaking factory workers and asked to be ordained as a priest in New York. In March 1836, John set sail for New York where Bishop John Dubois ordained him at Old Saint Patrick’s Church on June 25, 1836.
For four years after his ordination, Neumann worked among German-speaking immigrants in remote areas of New York. The hard and lonely life took a toll on John’s health. While convalescing in Rochester, Neumann became attracted to the Redemptorist congregation, a community of priests and brothers dedicated to the poor and abandoned. John joined the Redemptorists and continued his missionary work.
In 1852, Neumann was appointed fourth bishop of Philadelphia. He had a great love for all the people in his diocese and reached out with special care and concern to the poor. His devotion to the Eucharist led him to inaugurate the Forty Hours devotion in 1853. With roots in the 16th century, this practice of prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament spread throughout the diocese. Bishop Neumann had a great love for education and encouraged parishes to open elementary schools, establishing within his diocese a unified system of Catholic schools under a diocesan board. He is considered instrumental in founding the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and remained a faithful friend of the Sisters until his death.
Bishop Neumann died on January 5, 1860, and was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977. In his honor, Our Lady of Angels College was re-named Neumann College (now Neumann University) in 1980. Today the St. John Neumann Circle is the center of the campus.
Adapted from: He Spared Himself in Nothing: Essays on the Life and Thought of John Nepomucene Neumann, C.Ss.R. Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S., Editor. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2003.
“Give me an increasing love for your people.”
“Lord, teach me how to live.”
Adapted from John Neumann: Harvester of Souls, Tom Langon. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1976.
To learn more about St. John Neumann, click HERE.
Destined to be the co-founders of one of the largest religious movements to embrace the world, Francis and Clare were born and raised in Assisi, Italy, in the 12th century. The son of Pietro and Pica Bernardone, Francis was actually baptized John at the Church of San Rufino. However, because of his love for France, his father renamed him Francesco. The son of a cloth merchant, Francis was part of the newly formed merchant class. He had everything going for him, his father’s thriving business, the chance to ride off to battle with knights, a personality that made him the leader of Assisi’s young people, and the money to keep them as his friends.
Francis loved people, parties, singing. He also had a call, a conversion that began when he was captured in a battle between Assisi and Perugia and thrown into prison. When poor health caused his release after a year, he returned to his parents’ home depressed and confused. Long walks in the countryside of Assisi and an intense listening to God gave Francis the courage to follow his heart. He began to give his riches — and his father’s riches — to the poor. He found little joy in the wild festivities of his friends. Responding to a call in prayer before the crucifix at the Church of San Damiano, he put his energies into rebuilding dilapidated churches. The Assisi folk called him a fool, but Francis knew otherwise. He had found God in the depths of his heart and, in so doing, he found himself.
Eventually recognizing a deeper meaning in the invitation to “rebuild the Church,” Francis set about preaching the Gospel and teaching people to find God in all of creation, in themselves, and in every human activity. Overcoming his personal aversion and defying the civil laws of his day, Francis embraced and ministered to persons with leprosy. In 1209 Francis wrote a simple Rule to define the Gospel way of life for the men who followed him. During the Fifth Crusade in 1219, in a dramatic counter-cultural action, Francis dared to enter into respectful conversation with the leader of the Muslim army. Radiating a profound joy, Francis attracted followers numbering thousands in just a few years. Francis died on October 3, 1226. On July 16, 1228, Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis a saint.
“Be joyful, cheerful, and gracious.”
Adapted from the Earlier Rule, 7:16
“Speak courteously to everyone.”
Adapted from the Later Rule, III: 10-11
“Preach the Gospel always; if necessary use words.”
Adapted from the Earlier Rule, XVI.
“Let every creature praise God.”
From Later Admonition to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance
Clare was a dozen years younger than Francis and a member of the noble class. Her parents, Ortolana and Favorone Offreduccio, were among the wealthiest citizens of Assisi. Her life was far more sheltered than Francis, but Clare was known throughout Assisi for her generosity to the poor. At a young age, Clare developed a deep spirituality and was drawn to the teachings and lifestyle of Francis. She met him on a number of occasions until finally, in the middle of the night following Palm Sunday in 1212, she left her parents’ home and found her way to Francis and his brothers. There Clare made her commitment to God, and to the poor and simple lifestyle that Francis preached. Even when her uncles came to remove her from the convent where Francis had placed her, Clare did not waver. Nor did she falter when other women of nobility, including her younger sister, joined her. Like Francis, Clare cared for her followers, taught them by word and example, and wrote for them a simple Rule of life. She challenged the bishop and pope for the privilege of living the poor way of life to which she felt called. Clare died on August 11, 1253 and was canonized on August 15, 1255.
“Go forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness.”
From The Second Letter to Agnes of Prague
“Be kind so that others may approach you.”
From The Testament